I’ve always been a fan of the MacArthur “genius” grants, which over the years have supported writers as diverse as John Ashbery, Harold Bloom, Joseph Brodsky, William Gaddis, Ernest J. Gaines, Irving Howe, Charles Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, William Kennedy, Derek Walcott, Robert Penn Warren, and John Edgar Wideman, not to mention countless scientists, philosophers, and other bright folks. It was therefore with some dismay that I read Cheryl L. Reid’s piece on the foundation in Sunday’s Sun-Times, “City’s top charity pampers its own.”
Here’s one fact Reid uncovers: based on 2002 data, while the foundation distributes $1.4 million annually for its best-known program, the genius grants, it spends $77 million annually in operating and administrative expenses. According to Reid, the foundation ranks first out of the nation’s top 10 charitable foundations in its ratio of expenses to payout.
In responding to questions, foundation board members and staff demonstrate that they have a kind of genius of their own — a genius for obliviousness:
Board members, though, don’t seem to have a problem with the expense afforded them. Last November, in a Sun-Times interview, board Chair Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a renowned Harvard education professor, described her luxurious Four Seasons room on North Michigan Avenue as her “home away from home.”
Critics say glitzy rooms at the Four Seasons hardly seem appropriate for tax-exempt, nonprofit personnel. Corporate rates start at $385 a night for single occupancy and go to $570, the hotel reported.
When asked why the foundation felt it necessary to incur those kinds of expenses, spokesman Boyer replied, “It’s a fine Chicago hotel. It’s a great place to stay.”